In December of last year, I wrote an article for Buzzsaw exposing how a national corporation based in Cortland, N.Y., used foreign students as a temporary workforce. Students worked as packers for Marietta Corporation, mainly packaging hotel products on an assembly line.
Since the program sponsor was unable to provide housing for the students, the sponsor organization enlisted the help of a local motel at the last minute. There were at least four students to a room with no more than two beds, and most students worked 12-hour days with a few short breaks. With no means of transportation, most students rode their bikes from the motel to the factory or hitched a ride with the friendly maintenance guy who works at the motel. About 50 students shared a kitchen, one that made the average college dorm kitchen look like the set of Rachael Ray’s cooking show.
Despite the decrepit working and living conditions, I was hard-pressed to find any student who complained about their job. In fact, most were grateful for the opportunity and happy to be living and working in the “greatest country in the world.” The whole experience made me realize how hard these students work just to be able to catch a glimpse of the United States for a few short, laborious months.
These students came to the United States through a J-1 Visa program, an exchange program that allows students to work and travel in the country for no more than four months. Most of the jobs fall into the realm of seasonal work, with many students working at restaurants, hotels, or summer camps as counselors. In recent years, however, corporations’ exploitation of foreign students has overshadowed the “cultural exchange” part of the program. Given the short time the students are here, it’s easy for corporations to use them as cheap labor rather than offering those well-paying jobs to local citizens.
For labor unions, trying to organize workers who speak many different languages seems too arduous a task, which is why I was surprised to see this headline in The New York Times: “Foreign Students in Work Visa Program Stage Walkout at Plant”.
In August, the Times reports, hundreds of international students working at a Hershey’s chocolate factory staged a walk-out. Students complained of hostile working conditions and unjust treatment by management. Unable to voice their concerns to their superiors, they decided to stage a walkout.
The situation was so strikingly similar to what I uncovered at Marietta that I almost couldn’t believe it. The students I met in Cortland had told me this kind of thing happens everywhere, and they were right. I was happy to see the State Department launch a new website providing information on programs, sponsors, and employers. Most importantly, it allows for accountability and oversight for a program that desperately needs it.
Despite being in the country for such a short time, the students were even keen enough to blame the organization that manages the program rather than the corporation itself. While it’s easy to point the finger at “the man,” a corporation is a business with the singular goal of generating profit. If executives of a corporation want to hire J-1 visa workers, they have every right to do so. Much like we need to regulate the big banks on Wall Street, we need to regulate J-1 visa programs. The protest at Hershey’s gives hope to the tens of thousands of foreign students who come to the United States to work and travel. Let’s hope that they can continue to do so in a dignified manner.
Pete Blanchard is a senior journalism major. Read his December 2010 article “An Exchange Program” at Buzzsaw.